Travel Reviews: The Great Railway Bazaar – Book

The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia is an entertaining travelogue by American author Paul Theroux, chronicling his journey from Britain across Europe and Asia. He travels on some of the most famous trains in the world – the Orient Express, the Khyber Pass Local, the Frontier Mail, the Golden Arrow to Kuala Lumpur, the Mandalay Express, and the Trans-Siberian Express – which take him from London to Tokyo and back.


“The trains in any country contain the essential paraphernalia of the culture: Thai trains have the shower jar with the glazed dragon on its side, Singhalese ones the car reserved for Buddhist monks, Indian ones a vegetarian kitchen and six classes, Iranian ones prayer mats, Malaysian ones a noodle stall, Vietnamese ones bulletproof glass on the locomotive, and on every carriage of a Russian train there is a samovar. The railway bazaar, with its gadgets and passengers, represented the society so completely that to board it was to be challenged by the national character.”

― Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar

The novel was first published in 1975 and has since become a classic of modern literature. But how does it hold up today?

Also Read: 6 of The Most Scenic Train Routes in the World

[WARNING: Spoilers Ahead]

The Great Railway Bazaar Train

Set in 1973, it follows Theroux as he delivers lectures in numerous cities around the world, and chronicles all the chaos along the way. More a collection of episodes than a structured narrative, it focuses more on the journey and the people he meets than the cities he actually visits.

“sightseeing, an activity that delights the truly idle because it seems so much like scholarship, gawping and eavesdropping on antiquity, flattering oneself with the notion that one is discovering the past when really one is inventing it, using a guidebook as a scenario of swift notations.”

― Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar

However, Theroux makes it very clear that the book is a personal story and that he doesn’t set out to guide the reader through his many destinations.

The Journeys of the Great Railway Bazaar

Along with all this, we are treated to the author’s own thoughts and reflections on the (often hilarious) conversations he has with the varied people he meets. Despite the limitations of this format, Theroux manages to make each new place and each new interaction feel fresh and different.

“Anything is possible on a train: a great meal, a binge, a visit from card players, an intrigue, a good night’s sleep, and strangers’ monologues framed like Russian short stories.”

― Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar

While it’s full of Theroux’s signature wry humour and keen observations, the novel nonetheless comes across as overtly sarcastic and even self-righteous at times. He spends much of his journey with his nose stuck in a book (an ironic comment for a book review, I know) rather than experiencing the joys and adventures of travel.

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Though he doesn’t display any of the fascinations of all things ‘exotic’ you might see in other travel books, this leaves behind an image of a somewhat dissatisfied and unlikeable traveller, who wants nothing more than to go home. Theroux doesn’t care for the romance of train travel, preferring to describe the world exactly as he sees it.

“All travel is circular. I had been jerked through Asia, making a parabola on one of the planet’s hemispheres. After all, the grand tour is just the inspired man’s way of heading home. ”

― Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar

The World By Train

It ultimately ends up being less of a travel book about the ‘railway bazaar,’ and more a book about the experience of travel itself, specifically the experience of Theroux. However, the experience Theroux has seems to mostly involve dirty places that are either too hot or too cold and full of locals whose only aim in life seems to be to rip him off. Nearly everything is lacking in his eyes, and his happiest moments seem to be when he gets a comfortable compartment to himself.

Lionsgate Films

While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, and as anyone who has travelled can tell you some criticism is usual, there is a limit to how much one can read about the travails and displeasure of one man who seems to be constantly running away for something.

“The difference between travel writing as fiction is the difference between recording what the eye sees and discovering what the imagination knows. Fiction is pure joy – how sad that I could not reinvent the trip as fiction.”

― Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar

The novel also seems to be very much a product of its time (the 70s) and is full of chauvinistic, self-righteous and elitist ideas which ultimately colours what could have otherwise been a great novel. However, if you can get past that, the book is an engaging and entertaining read and an interesting look at the world as it was 40 years ago.

In 2006, Theroux retraced the journeys he features in The Great Railway Bazaar, looking at how the people and places he had once visited had changed. He chronicles this in the book Ghost Train to the Eastern Star.

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